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The Mule

The Mule

by Clay and Kay Derochie

Ron hated this alley more than any other drop point. As he moved into its night shadowed depths, he felt the rot around him at a cellular level. Foul smelling moisture dripped off the walls and formed greasy puddles where broken bricks met cracked concrete. The piles of rubbish to either side stirred with life that was best left undisturbed.

His past seemed to crowd around him here. His father laughed and told him again he wouldn’t amount to boil on a real man’s ass. “Why can’t you be more like Charlie?” “Screw Charlie,” he muttered. “He thinks being sober is some magic fix. He doesn’t know shit about my problems. He needs to…” Fear gripped his guts as his mind snapped back to the alley and the metal door at its end. Christ! Quit acting like a twerp. Now focus before you get your dumb ass killed here.

The bricks around it may have been crumbling, but the door was solid and set in a steel frame with security cameras and a light above it—a fitting tribute to the owner’s paranoia. It opened before he could knock and a large heavy-set man peered closely at his face.

“Jesus, Ernie. Don’t you recognize me by now?”

Ernie closed and barred the door behind him and patted Ron down. “I don’t get paid to recognize you quickly. Mr. Monty’s waiting for you.”

Ron’s guts gave another twitch as Ernie pointed to same door as always. The routine was a reassuring dance they both went through to prove their lives were somehow normal. Ron nodded, crossed to the other door. He knocked, and waited for Monty to call him in. OK, relax. You’re moving product for Salazar and no one’s going to mess with you. The Fat Man’s got your back.

Where Ernie had been large and phlegmatic, Monty was small, nervous, and far more dangerous. He did not like variations in his world and stood beside his desk exactly where he always did. Ron placed the package on the desk and stepped back three paces and waited. The ritual continued while Monty examined the product and asked seemingly irrelevant questions about Salazar and his business. Ron’s answer never varied, “I don’t know sir. I’m just the delivery man.” Finally, Monty signed the receipt, and gave the dismissal, “Everything appears to be in order. You can go now, but remember I got eyes on you in my alley.”

The alley always left him feeling dirty, and the certainty that Monty was watching filled him with the dread a rat must feel in the presence of a cobra. He wondered how many times he could kiss that snake before it bit him. Hoping his tremors weren’t visible to whoever was watching, he dialed Salazar on his cell. Check in before you go in, check in when you come out, follow the rules and everyone stays happy. Some days it was hard to remember that his life was getting better and better. God, the uppers he had taken earlier were making him jumpy. He needed a little taste to mellow out, but couldn’t risk it before returning to Salazar’s. The Fat Man did not like his couriers using smack on the job. The voice of the Man’s dispatcher clicked in his ear, “So, Ronald, everything is all right, yes?” The question was code and so was his answer. “No.” “Bueno. Come on in.”

Salazar’s home was nestled in an Old Town neighborhood that had seen much better days. The legitimately rich and powerful had long since left the area, and many of the old Victorian mansions were now micro tenements filled with the refuse of failed human lives. Ron sat still in his car while the gate guard checked the trunk. This was new and Ron wondered what the hell was up now. Ricardo Salazar ruled a small empire from his estate in old town and had the power to enforce his every whim. It was never comforting when the boss felt a need for increased security.

Ron drove slowly up a drive that curved around trees that no longer existed. The elms had disappeared recently to clear a field of vision around the house. After parking in the usual spot, he climbed the steps and followed Luis, the doorman, inside. The disrepair of the exterior didn’t hint at the quiet luxury of the interior. Ron found the deep carpets, soft lights and rich décor soothing. Now this is what it’s all about. This is why you kiss the damn snakes.

His momentary peace was shattered upon entering the study. Salazar’s entire 280-pound bulk lurched around his desk, and his red-rimmed eyes gave him the appearance of a huge maddened boar charging out of the underbrush. Ron would have backed out of the room if the doorman hadn’t given him a slight shove and closed the door behind him. Instead, he approached Salazar close enough to place the night’s receipts directly in his hand. The man’s appearance was frightening. He had an odd odor that suddenly reminded Ron of the alley he had just left. His sallow skin dripped oily sweat, and his eyes twitched back and forth without settling on anything. Rapid, shallow breath punctuated his speech. “ So, Ronald!   Tell me   about the   deliveries. Tell me   everything!”

Oh, Jesus. He’s tweaked out of his fucking mind. If I looked like that, he’d kill me. Ron knew he looked terrified, and he knew that his fear could trigger the predator that hovered in front of him.

“Ronald! Tell me!”

A part of him that his father had beaten into a cage broke free. Ron felt himself and his fears pushed back, as this other being demanded absolute self-control. He felt his body straighten as he stepped further into the Fat Man’s space. “The deliveries went very well.” Salazar’s eyes finally focused on him. “Everyone received their product on time. All of the receipts are accounted for… Sir.”

Salazar moved behind his desk and sat down. Ron moved to stand in front of the desk and waited. His feigned patience was rewarded as Salazar seemed to pull himself together and come to a decision. “Ronald, you surprise me. You have a lot more balls than I thought.” Reaching into a desk drawer, he exposed a large pistol and an envelope. His hand passed over the pistol, picked up the envelope, and tossed it on the desk. Ron’s beast retreated.“Thank you, Sir.”

“You’re welcome. Ronald, come early tomorrow. We have an important new buyer and need to expand. I think you may ready for your own crew. Luis will show you out.” A spot between his shoulder blades itched as he left the room; he shook it off, tucking the envelope with his cut into his shirt. What the hell. I’m going to make some real money now, maybe send Chris to camp.

As Ron turned onto his street, he sighed. The house he shared with his seven-year-old son, Chris, and Terri, the live-in babysitter, was far shabbier than the outside of Salazar’s. As he coasted into his driveway, he lifted the center consul and pulled three small plastic bags from a hidden compartment. Two were filled with a light brownish powder and the third, twenty-four red and blue capsules. The caps and one of the other bags went into a zippered jacket pocket and he put the last into his breast pocket.

Payday for Terri. A smile crossed his face. Shit, maybe now I can afford to get a real baby sitter—not one who works for food, a bed, and smack. Maybe I can afford to move out of this hellhole entirely.

His son was asleep as he expected, but Terri met him at the door just like he imagined a good “wife” would, if you didn’t look at her gaunt face and the filthy mess behind her. She stared hungrily into his eyes. “What did daddy bring me?” Ron’s skin crawled, but he smiled and tapped his shirt pocket. “What you need is a nice piece of candy.” She reached greedily in and pulled out the packet, eyes glowing. “Let me go freshen up and then we can play.”

Ron watched her disappear into her room and wasn’t too worried about having to “play” later. Funny, at one time he had truly loved a woman, Sandy, Chris’s mom; but she had left him, like his own mom had left his dad. Screw them all. At least Sandy hadn’t take his son, the only thing that mattered in this rat-shit existence.

Ron slipped into the converted storage room where Chris slept. Gazing down at his son, he felt the disquiet that comes when two conflicting thoughts seem equally true. He knew this life sucked for Chris; and, equally true, he knew he wasn’t capable of giving him anything better. Ron tucked the covers around his child and kissed him gently.

“Good night, Tiger.”

Better check on Terri. Terri was just fine. She was sprawled on her bed, breathing, with a thin line of drool running down her chin. “Now there’s my sleeping beauty! Don’t think I’ll kiss you and wake you up,” he whispered to her. He put the needle and drugs away where Chris wouldn’t be likely to find them. That had happened—once.

Back in his own room, Ron pulled up a floor board in his closet to stash most of his take for the evening. He had a very tidy sum squirreled away, and it helped fuel the dream that someday things would be different. He could hear his father snort, “When pigs fly.”

Screw him again; the only thing he brought home was a bottle and a bad temper. His mind continued to spin trying to balance a life that was becoming increasingly more complicated with the ever-mounting fear that things were spinning out of control. With a coke spoon, Ron took a small pinch from his own bag and placed it under his tongue. Just to quiet my mind, he promised himself. As he drifted off, he silently chided, Great dope fiend you are; afraid of needles. Oh well, Salazar doesn’t like tracks.

Nightmares stalked his sleep and he was powerless to move while his father shook his screaming son. The screams became more and more insistent, and he awoke with his heart pounding. The screams were coming from the back yard. The beast came snarling out, and he tore through the house and out the back door.

He could not make sense of what he saw. Chris was climbing a tree screaming, and Terri was squirting some white stuff at him. He shot across the dirt yard, grabbed Terri, and shook her, sending a bottle of sunscreen flying. “What the fuck are you doing?” Terri tried to cower away. Her fear enraged him. He pulled his fist back to strike and was stopped by his son’s voice.

“Daddy! No! We were playing, Daddy. I’m sorry! It won’t happen again.” The shock and fear on Chris’s face drained him. Terri broke free and ran sobbing to the house. “Chris, I’m sorry. I was frightened. I thought Terri was trying to hurt you.” The look on Chris’s face changed from fear to confusion and fear. “Oh, Chris-boy, Daddy’s sorry. I didn’t mean it.” Ron reached up to lift Chris from the tree and watched his son flinch and pull away from him.

“Don’t do that!”

Chris froze and allowed himself to be lifted down. Ron set him on the ground. “Go play in your room.” He watched his son run to the house and disappear inside, then followed slowly, exhausted beyond words. Inside, he paused and opened the door to Terri’s room. She was curled on the bed shaking and looked up in fear at the sound of the door. Ron closed his eyes. “Terri, I’m sorry; I’ll make it up to you.” When he opened his eyes, she was staring at him in disbelief. Hell, he thought, I don’t believe me either. “We’ll talk later.” She nodded enough to allow himself to believe he had made a difference.

When he checked, Chris was in his room, sitting on his bed, and holding an old comic in his hands. Ron’s heart shrank when he realized the comic was the last one he brought home, almost six months ago. Why did he keep that? “Are you okay, Tiger?” Chris started to shake his head then nodded, as he watched his father’s face. “That’s cool. Daddy’s got to get some sleep before work tonight. You be a good boy. Okay?”

Back in his room and lying on his bed, Ron heard his father again. “Nice going, asshole! How are you going to fix this?” Ron had no idea.

Small hands were shaking him. “Daddy, wake up! It’s supper time.” Ron’s eyes opened slowly, and he growled playfully at Chris. Chris laughed and jumped away. Ron could pretend he hadn’t seen that slight shadow of residual fear in his son’s eyes.

“Tell Terri I’ll be there in a bit. I got to clean up a bit first.”

“Okay!” Chris shouted as he ran toward the kitchen.

Ron popped a couple of uppers and headed for the bathroom. Well at least Terri’s still here. That’s some consolation. It would have been tough to find someone on short notice to watch Chris. He showered, shaved, and shined while the uppers brought him wide awake. God, he felt Good! The world was okay and Ron was good in it; he just needed to make up with Terri.

His good mood and intentions almost vanished as he entered the kitchen. Terri looked like hell warmed over and couldn’t quite look at him. The old anger started up. Why do I have to spend another day having to deal with someone else’s damned problems? Because you caused them, Asshole. Ron took a deep breath and crossed the room.

“Terri, I am sorry. I thought you were hurting Chris. I just went crazy.”

She looked at him. “Why would you believe that?”

The question startled him. Why in hell would I believe that? She’s been taking care of Chris for almost two years. She’s spent more time with him than I have. “I don’t know. That’s a stupid thing to believe. I was scared. I heard Chris screaming. You were there. I don’t know why. I’m just sorry I frightened you.”

Terri’s eyes looked doubtful, fearful. She had the look of a trapped lamb that needs to believe the lion won’t eat her. “That can’t ever happen again.”

Ron nodded slowly aware that Chris was watching them both. His stomach twitched as he remembered his father making similar promises to his “live-ins.” Dear God, please don’t let me go there!

Dinner tasted like cardboard, and no one seemed able to talk about anything. Afterward, Ron sat alone at the table trying to patch all the cracks that were forming in his world. It looked like he was going to move up in Salazar’s organization. Everything was going to be better, but the pain in his guts kept getting worse. The ghost of his father was everywhere he turned; and, worse, he was doing all the things he swore he would never do. What was next? Beating up Chris so he could feel important? Charlie had asked him that the last time they had talked. What the hell does he know?

His life was beginning to look like Monty’s alley. There was garbage and rot everywhere and a cold iron door at the end. Monty! Christ I’m going to be late to that meeting. I’ll call Salazar and tell him I’m on my way. As he pulled the phone from his pocket, a tug on his sleeve brought him around to face his son.

“Daddy, I love you.”

His son’s face, open and guileless, professed his love from the depth of his little being without reservation. With painful clarity, Ron realized he was loved completely without deserving it. That clarity drew his attention next to Chris’ smile and then to his son’s teeth. Those teeth met in a straight perfectly flat line. Finally, that awful clarity demanded that he acknowledge he had caused the son who loved him totally to grind his teeth flat.

His heart clenched and his throat constricted. “I love you too, Chris”.

While he held his son tightly, his fingers picked out the numbers on the keypad. The phone rang twice and connected.

“Charlie? It’s Ronnie. I got to stop.”

© 2010 Clay and Kay Derochie

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